Adam Sandler will be honored by the Kennedy Center with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. (Erik Carter for The Washington Post)

Adam Sandler doesn’t need your respect. But he’s getting it anyway.

In a rare sit-down interview, the former SNL star and comedy icon reflects on his career as he receives the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor

23 min

PITTSBURGH — During every Adam Sandler stand-up show, he straps on his electric guitar and sings a song. Unlike the bite-size ditties he’s peppered through the set about selfies or baggy shorts, this one concerns his late, great “Saturday Night Live” buddy, Chris Farley.

It is a perfect tribute. Sandler, singing softly as he strums in G, captures the complicated beauty of Farley as clips of his most memorable high jinks play on a giant screen behind him. The crowd roars as he references Farley’s electrifying SNL turns as a Chippendales dancer and a motivational speaker “living in a van down by the river.” There is a hush as Sandler slips into the bridge, a peek into his friend’s vulnerability.

I saw him in the office, crying with his headphones on

Listening to a KC and the Sunshine Band song

I said, “Buddy, how the hell is that making you so sad?”

Then he laughed and said, “Just thinking about my dad”

Sandler first performed “Farley” in 2015 during a guest spot at Carnegie Hall, a show that inspired him to return to doing stand-up tours. And he played it when he hosted SNL in 2019, choking up visibly.

“Only Sandler could do that,” says Dana Carvey, an SNL star when the younger comedian arrived in 1990. “That’s another gear that Adam has. He’ll be really, really silly. But he’s not afraid to go for sentimentality and earnestness.”

The song, with its mix of low- and highbrow, the profane and poetic, could serve as a four-minute-and-22-second window into why the comedian and actor is being recognized with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. And it’s why his friends are glad that, at 56, he’s finally getting his due. All of which may sound strange for someone whose films — generational comedies that include “Happy Gilmore,” “The Wedding Singer” and “Grown Ups” — have earned more than $3 billion at the box office. But for Sandler, popularity and praise have rarely come hand in hand.

That has changed some in recent years. Sandler’s dramatic acting performances in 2017’s “The Meyerowitz Stories,” last year’s basketball drama “Hustle” and especially 2019’s “Uncut Gems” brought unlikely (and ultimately fruitless) Oscar buzz. His 2019 stand-up special “100% Fresh” and 2020’s throwback comedy “Hubie Halloween” confirmed why he’s been packing movie theaters and arenas since the Clinton administration. The Twain puts Sandler in the company of such figures as Eddie Murphy, Carol Burnett and Steve Martin.

And the timing is perfect, says his old boss, Lorne Michaels, himself a recipient of the prize from the Kennedy Center in 2004.

“The nature of comedy is you get the audience, you get the money,” says Michaels, SNL’s creator and executive producer. “Respect is the last thing you get.”

‘Completely new and fresh’

Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions headquarters is in a small building in Pacific Palisades, not far from where he lives with his wife, Jackie, and their daughters, Sadie, 16, and Sunny, 14.

On a recent Friday afternoon, the bearded Sandler enters the room with a slight limp courtesy of hip replacement surgery he had in the fall. A few days earlier, he was in Boston, helping Sadie look at colleges. The next day he’ll go to the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards with his daughters who will watch him receive the King of Comedy Award and submit to the inevitable sliming. (Sandler is the first person to receive the top comedy honors from Nickelodeon and the Kennedy Center, let alone receive them in the same month.)

Sandler typically doesn’t do interviews like this. He will go on podcasts with buds, sit on the couch on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” or answer goofy questions on “Entertainment Tonight” (“Who would be at your murder mystery party?”) but this — a three-hour drill-down about his career — is not his thing. He can tell you exactly why.

Flash back to 1995 in the SNL offices. Al Franken, the veteran writer and future senator, confronts Sandler and tells him that nobody appreciated his quotes in that TV Guide story. Huh? Sandler checks and sees that the magazine ran a quote from him complaining that “the writing sucks” on the show.

“I go, ‘I never f---in’ said that. I never would say that,’” he remembers now. “So I called the writer. I said, ‘Why did you say I said that?’ And he kind of didn’t want to talk to me. I should have taped the conversation.”

Then, a few months later, came the New York magazine article titled “Comedy Isn’t Funny.” Michaels gave Chris Smith, a writer with the magazine, unfettered access to Studio 8H for weeks. The resulting article mashed the writer’s disgust for the show with anonymous quotes attacking its cast. The harshest mockery was reserved for the boyishly sensitive Farley.

“He came and fake buddied up with us,” says David Spade, who was also in the cast. “We let him in on all these meetings and dinners, and he wrote a s---ty piece to get himself notoriety.”

Asked about his article today, Smith says SNL “was not a happy place at the time.”

By then, Sandler had starred in “Billy Madison,” an instant entry into the teenage canon that debuted at No. 1 at the box office. It also got terrible reviews. Terrible reviews. It was one of the last times Sandler read what the critics had to say, good or bad.

“When ‘Billy Madison’ came out and I realized I’m going to be in the newspaper, that was a big deal,” he says. “When I was a kid, if I got a couple of hits in baseball and was in the Union Leader — Adam Sandler, you know, shortstop got a single and a double — I got excited. And then I read a couple reviews and I was like, ‘Woof, that hurts.’ I thought they would have a good time with it like I did. And then ‘Happy Gilmore’ was getting trashed and my friends were getting all riled up, and I just said, ‘No, I don’t need to read that stuff.’”

Ultimately, Sandler would respond. Just not to the critics.

“I decided I wanted to talk through what I like to do,” he says. “I like to do my stand-up. I like to do my movies. I was just happy doing that.”

Sandler grew up in Manchester, N.H., the youngest of Judy and Stanley’s four children. They were supportive parents. Judy praised his singing, and the boy would sometimes entertain her by crooning Johnny Mathis from the back seat. Stanley, an electrical contractor, coached his sports teams and bought him an electric guitar at the age of 12. Sandler still takes that Strat out onstage. He named his character in 2022’s “Hustle” after Stanley, who died in 2003.

Growing up, Sandler played basketball for the local Jewish community center team and guitar in bands called Messiah, Spectrum and Storm. He also fell in love with comedy, listening to Steve Martin and Cheech & Chong records, watching “Caddyshack” and “Animal House,” and seeing Eddie Murphy on SNL.

He headed to New York University in 1984 to study acting and was setting up his room in Brittany Hall when Tim Herlihy walked in. Sandler told Herlihy he wanted to be a comedian. Herlihy told Sandler he wanted to study economics and get rich. That first weekend, though, he handed Sandler a few jokes he had scribbled down for him. He’s been a regular writing partner since, from 1995’s “Billy Madison” to “Hubie Halloween.” Elsewhere in the dorm, they met a business major, Jack Giarraputo, and his roommate, Frank Coraci, who was studying film. Another NYU acting student, Allen Covert, also joined the crew. All remain essential partners with the exception of Giarraputo, who left the business in 2014 to spend more time with his family.

Sandler did his first stand-up at 17 at an open mic in Boston. He didn’t realize you had to write material and remembers riffing about his family. At NYU, he became a club regular. At first, he struggled and sometimes even turned on the crowd, until some older comics told him yelling at the audience wasn’t a great strategy.

What he had going for him, even before he had great material, still works for him onstage. There is a natural ease and a likability. He will chuckle as he tells a joke, as if you’re playing pool or getting a burger and your buddy has a funny story to tell you.

“It’s not an affectation,” says Herlihy. “It’s the way his mind works. When he’s laughing, it’s like, ‘Oh, this is a good part.’ Like this guy who lived it can’t even get through it without laughing.”

“As a young person,” adds director Judd Apatow, who roomed with Sandler after NYU but before SNL, “everybody that encountered him thought, ‘This guy is going to be a gigantic star.’ Because he was making us so happy when we hung around with him.”

That personality captured Doug Herzog, then an MTV executive who would later launch “The Daily Show” and “South Park.” In 1987, Herzog had gone to a club to see another act as he scouted for MTV’s “Remote Control” game show. He ended up hiring Sandler, who was still living in his dorm.

“I’m waiting and this kid jumps onstage — sneakers, old-school sweatpants, end-of-the-’80s ratty T-shirt, backwards baseball hat,” says Herzog. “I would say an idiosyncratic kind of vibe and tone. You’re also, like, in the heyday of the Beastie Boys and I was like, ‘Oh, he kind of looks like a Beastie Boy and he’s funny and he’s charming.’”

Sandler’s biggest break came two years later. He and Chris Rock auditioned for SNL with a group of comics. Michaels remembers there were others in the room who were more versatile. But nobody as original.

“Most people audition in the style of things that have already been on the show,” Michaels says. “But what I’m looking for is something that makes you laugh because you haven’t seen it yet. Both of them had that. Adam was truly funny but in a style that was completely new and fresh.”

Friction at SNL

In 2019, Sandler returned to host SNL for the first time and centered his monologue on how much he loved being a cast member. Then he mentioned a question his daughter had asked. “If it was the greatest, Dad, then why did you leave?”

As the piano kicked in, Sandler began a ballad: “I was fired.”

Which is not exactly true. But Sandler’s SNL run, from 1990 to 1995, would see two factions emerge inside 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Those who got it and those who didn’t. Executives were known to lodge complaints about his work. And within the cliquey cast and writers room, there was also a split.

“At read-through, Adam would do an [Weekend] Update piece, like where he was a travel guide and the joke would be that he was just not doing what a travel guide is supposed to be doing,” says Robert Smigel, a writer on the show for eight years. “But he was delivering the information with a blissful idiot’s enthusiasm. And it was incredibly funny. And I just remember me and Conan [O’Brien] and the nerds — Greg Daniels and [Bob] Odenkirk — giggling uncontrollably in one corner of this room. This room that otherwise had a black cloud hanging over it.”

Jim Downey, the legendary writer who had worked with John Belushi, Gilda Radner and Bill Murray, decided early on that Sandler was the closest thing SNL ever had to Jerry Lewis. Those wacky voices, the off-kilter characters. He could also sing, bringing his acoustic guitar onto Weekend Update to do his irresistible tributes to Thanksgiving and Hanukkah (“O.J. Simpson, not a Jew. But guess who is? Hall of Famer Rod Carew — he converted.”) As Downey watched the split, between appreciators and disparagers, he developed a term to describe Sandler’s critics. Half-brights.

“Ordinary people had no problem with him, and really smart people had no problem,” says Downey. “But there was this group in the middle who would just take great offense at this kind of thing. They thought it was self-indulgent and infantile. And the thing about Adam was: … Most performers — it’s very important that they be respected as intelligent and often more intelligent than they really are. Adam was a guy who did not care if you thought he was smart and, in fact, went out of the way to obscure the fact that he is, I’d daresay, a lot more intelligent than 90 percent of the performers I’ve worked with.”

Sandler’s greatest bits were deceivingly multidimensional. “The Herlihy Boy,” named after his college roommate, was a commercial you would never see. A needy, potentially sociopathic man-child pleads to housesit (“Pleeeeeze … it would mean so much to me if you just let me water your plants”) or walk your grandmother across the street. Every minute or so, the camera pulls back to show Chris Farley as an exasperated older relative who wants you to give the damn kid a break while screaming, pleading and generally Farleying at full blast.

“To me, that was a rhythm piece,” says Sandler. “I’m going to calmly talk, Farley’s going to go f---ing bananas. Camera will zoom back in — calm energy — then widen to a sick man screaming. I knew that had a comedy rhythm to it. I learned that from SNL. I learned what made me laugh. Like Dan Aykroyd on ‘Fred Garvin, Male Prostitute.’ That rhythm influenced me.”

Sandler’s most famous character may have been Canteen Boy, a voice and persona he would adapt for his hugely successful 1998 film, “The Waterboy,” and bring back nearly 25 years later for “Hubie Halloween.” Canteen Boy is a misfit — always dressed in Boy Scout attire with a baby-talk voice — who is universally mocked but still exudes a boastful pride.

“It wasn’t like a single joke that escalates,” says Smigel. “It was a conversation between a somewhat strange guy and a couple of other people who were perceived as normal. And the other guys are just kind of smirking and making ... comments that they think are going over his head, but they’re not. And the weird guy doesn’t want to let them know that they’re hurting him. So he’s acting like they’re going over his head, for his own dignity’s sake. So that’s a lot going on in a ‘Saturday Night Live’ sketch.”

Canteen Boy, like so many of his ideas, was polarizing. But it was, in a way, a microcosm of Sandler’s time on SNL — the smug, self-assured grown-ups looking down on the goofy kid who was much smarter than they realized.

“Somebody like Franken is like, ‘Really, Canteen Boy?’” says Smigel. “And I literally said to Al, ‘It’s the most complex sketch in read-through.’”

Franken wasn’t the only doubter. NBC’s executives complained, too. Don Ohlmeyer, a network president, targeted Sandler, Farley and Spade. These guys aren’t funny, he’d tell Michaels. I think they are, Michaels would respond. The execs longed for the past, for Roseanne Roseannadanna or Chevy’s pratfalls. They didn’t understand Sandler singing, “A turkey for me, a turkey for you, let’s eat turkey in a big brown shoe.”

“Whether it’s in painting or in music or in writing, style changes are disruptive,” says Michaels. “And the reaction to Adam on the show, in the world, was growing, but it wasn’t visible in the mainstream because they were all baby boomers.”

“I don’t think I ever met Don Ohlmeyer,” says Sandler. “I shook it off. That’s not what I heard when I walked down the street and some kid talked to me about Crazy Pickle Arm. I was going by the response of my New Hampshire friends calling me up, my father telling me his buddy’s kid thought such and such was funny. Or my brother. What he liked. I didn’t take it personally. I didn’t sit there and go, maybe I should change.”

By 1995, he had been at SNL for five seasons when Michaels talked with Sandler’s manager, Sandy Wernick. “Billy Madison” had come out a few months earlier. Wernick told Michaels that Sandler was filming “Happy Gilmore,” in which Sandler played a temperamental failed hockey player who joins the golf tour to save his grandmother from being evicted.

“I said, ‘Listen, I can protect him at the show, at least for now,’” says Michaels. “But they’re so adamant about his not being funny and not being good. So I think — go. He can leave.”

Winning audiences

Losing SNL was scary. “Billy Madison” had done well, but it wasn’t exactly “Ghostbusters.” He wondered whether he would keep getting opportunities.

“Maybe the other companies are going to start saying, ‘Don’t hire him because of this. They don’t like him over there. Maybe there’s a reason.’’’ Sandler says. “I was probably just nervous about that, but I didn’t doubt myself.”

By now, Sandler’s NYU team was humming. Herlihy would write with him. Giarraputo would help produce, do marketing, pitch in on jokes. Coraci came on board to direct “The Wedding Singer” and “Waterboy.” He would later do “Click,” “Blended” and “The Ridiculous 6.” Following Sandler’s lead, they focused on the audience, not the critics.

Test screenings would be key.

“Adam would sneak into the back of the theater and he would listen,” says Giarraputo. “As a comedian, it’s like a live audience — which jokes are working. Sometimes, we would have to open up spaces for jokes because they were laughing so hard.”

So when “Billy Madison” came out and was savaged by critics — Herlihy’s 84-year-old grandfather tried to comfort him after a Long Island Newsday writer compared the film to the horrors of Auschwitz — the gang jumped in a car and sneaked into theaters to watch audiences roar.

Ticket sales kept increasing. Home viewing on videotape, then DVD, was huge. “The Waterboy” made $186 million on a $23 million budget. “Big Daddy,” out in 1999, topped $230 million.

“Everybody wants to be loved,” says Tamra Davis, who directed “Billy Madison.” “But sometimes, it’s like when your parents don’t get your music. I kind of saw it as a badge of glory.”

Moving beyond comedy

In between his career-defining epics “Magnolia” and “There Will Be Blood,” Paul Thomas Anderson decided to write a movie for Sandler. Anderson loved watching a particular Sandler sketch on SNL, “The Denise Show,” where Sandler’s scorned ex-boyfriend, Brian, would throw a petulant, self-pitying tantrum. In 2002’s “Punch-Drunk Love,” he cast Sandler as pent-up lonely man Barry Egan opposite Emily Watson, and Sandler was the unexpected recipient of critical praise.

He then branched out into more romantic comedies, including “50 First Dates” with Drew Barrymore and “Just Go With It” with Jennifer Aniston.

That made perfect sense to Queen Latifah, who played his wife in last year’s “Hustle” and remembers laughing at him on SNL.

“I love ‘50 First Dates,’” she says. “Adam knows how to play the romantic comedy, and I think a lot of it is because this is a guy I would like to meet. This is a guy that would make me laugh. This is a guy who’s sweet. This is a guy who has real feelings and gets pissed off.”

Sandler’s dramatic side returned in Apatow’s “Funny People,” the 2009 film in which he played a darker, Rodney Dangerfield-ish version of a comic, and in 2017, when Noah Baumbach wrote a part for him as a musical and sweetly underappreciated house-dad opposite Dustin Hoffman’s narcissistic, insecure patriarch in “Meyerowitz.” Then came 2019’s “Uncut Gems,” a film by Josh and Benny Safdie. They had grown up with Sandler’s comedy albums from the 1990s. They spent years recruiting him to play the deeply flawed Howard Ratner, a jewelry dealer with a gambling addiction and a dissolving marriage.

“There’s this rage and this deep sweetness to him,” says Josh Safdie. “And he’s the only person who could have expressed what made Howard lovable for us.”

That range has also impressed his co-stars.

Jennifer Aniston, who has made three movies with Sandler, including the new Netflix adventure comedy “Murder Mystery 2,” remembers watching Sandler rhyme “deli” with “Arthur Fonzarelli” when he did “The Chanukah Song.”

“I mean, you couldn’t keep a straight face,” she says. “And personally, I think ‘[You Don’t Mess With the] Zohan’ is one of the funniest movies and then he has ‘Uncut Gems.’ It’s very rare for actors to be able to hit it out of the park in every genre.”

“I don’t know how he gets there. I have no idea,” says Eric Bogosian, who was portrayed by Sandler on SNL in 1994, and who acted alongside him in “Uncut Gems” 25 years later. “But he does drop into a very centered place and speaks from a kind of authenticity when you watch his scenes.”

Sandler does not look for dramatic roles. He says his wife ultimately convinced him he was right for “Uncut Gems” after he expressed apprehension about the role.

“When I see him like that,” says Jackie in an email, “I let him know why I think he would be great at that specific part and why I think his fans would like to see him be that character. Because people coming up on the street and telling him how much one of his movies meant to them, that’s what drives him.”

Sandler can also take a different approach on a project he’s hired for as an actor than one under Happy Madison Productions. He focuses on his part, not punching up the script or talking through shots or casting. One thing he doesn’t take these roles on for is to show something to his critics.

“But I do think he’s trying to prove something to himself,” says Dustin Hoffman.

“Adam does compete — with himself,” writes Jackie. “He wants to come up with something new that he hasn’t done before.”

In “The Meyerowitz Stories,” Hoffman says, there were times when Sandler would seem unsure of his performance and the older actor would find himself reassuring him.

“What I think he does that is similar to what I try to do is that you think a lot about what you’re to do with this so-called character,” says Hoffman. “And then when you get there, forget it all. What sticks is what then comes out. He’s very alive in the moment and not preplanned.”

Sandler’s material may have changed, but his personality has not. His primary mission is to make you laugh. Whether onstage or in his office, he will talk about his excitement over a project — that “Hustle” is the first Happy Madison production that wasn’t a comedy — but there will never be any whining about not getting an Oscar nomination for “Uncut Gems” or “Meyerowitz.”

“He’s not looking for pats on the back,” says Spade, who remains a close friend. “He’s already won.”

When Sandler was a kid, he just wanted to make it like Rodney, Eddie or Aykroyd. And he did. Then he got to do the roles James Caan or Robert Duvall could pull off. And then he got married and suddenly he had a family. He’ll celebrate his 20th anniversary with Jackie this summer, and more than anyone else she’s the one who counsels, pushes, advises him on what to do. With what roles to take and with the girls and their birthday parties, bat mitzvahs and college tours. At 56, he is both the king of comedy and the dad with every intention of taking off 10 pounds.

Back onstage in Pittsburgh, “Farley” comes late in the gig, but it’s not the finale. Instead, Sandler tells the crowd he loves them and says the next one is for Jackie. And then he’s strumming a familiar tune, “Grow Old With You” from “The Wedding Singer,” only this time he’s not sporting a mullet and Billy Idol isn’t there to offer vocal and moral support. The verses have been changed to match his real life.

… Now when I get chubby

We do the couples cleanse

You tell me I should have been nominated

For “Hustle” and “Uncut Gems”

I said, “I’ll stick with the Kids’ Choice Awards

As I grow old with you”

They are cheering now, with their “Happy Gilmore” hockey jerseys, their memories of Opera Man and that Hanukkah song, and Sandler, from the stage, turns the final line in his song back to the crowd.

Thanks for growing old — with me.

The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor ceremony will air at 8 p.m. March 26 on CNN.